This is an interview with Lorelei Vashti.
Lorelei Vashti is a writer, book editor, and one-time candy-bar bear. Her first book was book Dress, Memory published in 2014 through Allen & Unwin, and based on her popular blog, Dress, Memory. Her latest is How To Choose Your Baby's Last Name: A Handbook for New Parents.
So, this book is the the first-ever resource IN THE ENTIRE WORLD for parents-to-be who are deliberating what last name to give their child. It's such a great idea, I can't believe it doesn't already exist. What inspired you?
During my first pregnancy, in 2014, my partner and I went through the process of trying to work out what last name to give our daughter. We both have different surnames, and neither of us assumed our baby should get his name (at least not without some discussion around it). So we did what anyone would do: scoured the internet for advice on what to do.
We are both pride ourselves on being pretty good Googles, but it was really confusing and difficult to find any information. We wanted answers to such basic questions as: What last name options are there? What do other countries do? Is it even legal in Australia, the US and UK to choose a last name that’s not the father’s? What happens to your genealogy and family tree if you choose a last name that isn’t the father’s?
We found some good first-person essays out there that questioned the tradition of passing on the father’s surname to the baby, but nothing that had all the information we needed in one place to try to make a good decision for ourselves. So I decided to create a handbook, a resource, that laid out all the possible options clearly for readers, and that also painted a picture of any possible outcomes of the choices you might make. For this part of the book, I surveyed close to 200 people who had all made different decisions, and asked them how they went about the process of choosing their baby’s name.
I was so inspired by these stories because they illustrate how personal this decision is. I realised there isn’t a magical, obvious, one-size-fits-all solution! Everyone comes to the baby surname dilemma with very individual needs. And by compiling all of this info and these stories in one place, I feel like I’ve created the book we needed two years ago when we were trying to choose our daughter’s last name.
Can you speak to your personal experience of starting a family and deciding on names for your children? How does that feed into this book?
I’ve always been obsessed with first names, but until I was pregnant I hadn’t really given surnames much of a thought. Our own experience was very much the inspiration for this book—if we hadn’t struggled so hard to make a decision I don’t think I would have realised how weighty and fraught this issue is for couples, in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
We ended up giving our daughter a blended surname, a smoosh of both our surnames, so a big part of my interest in writing the book was talking to other families who had made alternative choices and asking how it affected their lives—had their choice made their lives harder or easier, and did they regret their choice?
I’ve been working on the book for the entire two and a half years of my daughter’s life, so my research and interviews on this topic have also been informed by my own experience with my daughter’s unconventional surname. We’ve now had the chance to test her surname out in lots of real-life scenarios—doctor’s surgeries, at daycare, and flying domestically and internationally (these are all the scenarios people imagine an alternative surname might cause trouble). But we haven’t experienced any trouble yet.
I think a lot of people get very fearful about doing something a bit unconventional with their child’s last name because they don’t want to make things harder for that child, or for themselves,which is an understandable and admirable instinct.
But people also forget the world is changing, and fast: families who have different last names are a lot more common than they used to be, and a lot of the social stigma of the 'Shakespearean bastard' child who doesn't have its father's surname is not (or should not) be a genuine fear these days.
I think we all owe it to ourselves, and to our children if we want to raise them in a fairer society, to interrogate individually what this patrilineal tradition of handing down male surnames says, both to our daughters and to our sons.
In writing this, you must have gone down some interesting research roads. Did you uncover anything fun or mind-blowing?
I have learnt so many fascinating things! I loved researching how other countries have very different traditions when it comes to last names: our tradition of passing on the male surname is certainly not a global phenomenon, and there are many places, such as Latin America and Iceland, who have different ways of passing down family history via the surname. Then there are other countries, such as France and Belgium, who are creating modern laws, even just in the last year or two, that have allowed more flexibility when it comes to last names, indicating that this formerly rigid tradition is definitely opening up.
I also loved learning that last names are not bound by any particular law in Australia, that we have the freedom to choose our last names for ourselves and for our children—and yet, despite this, the overwhelming majority of heterosexual couples still default to using the father's surname for their children. I'm interested in what this says about gender equality.
Even China has acknowledged that passing on the male surname may contribute to the greater number of sex-selective abortions and infanticide in that country, because preferencing the male line via the surname then leads to a greater desirability for sons to 'continue on the family name'.
To try to rectify this, one Chinese province recently introduced a cash incentive to those couples who were willing to pass on the mother's surname instead, in an effort to change the mentality that sons are of greater value than daughters. People say last names don't matter and that there are bigger feminist causes to fight, but I find this particular connection between how much we might place value on one gender over another quite mind-blowing!
There's got to be some friction surrounding the naming of babies – where issues of patriarchy, tradition, progress, religion and cultural traditions collide. What advice do you have for new parents trying to navigate through these metaphorical but possibly rocky waters?
It’s really tricky! And it’s not just your partner with whom you’re negotiating these issues, but often also the extended family, and of course, beyond that, society at large.
A lot of couples who would like to make an untraditional choice admit to feeling burdened by the pressure of family and society, which is totally normal. It’s a really difficult decision to make, and the thing I encourage in the book is just to make sure you have the discussion about it with your partner.
Even if you end up going with the father’s surname in the end, at least you have talked about it and put some other ideas on the table.
It’s not always possible or even desirable for couples to make an alternative choice, but I do believe that if you start your parenting journey with two different surnames then it is only fair and right to discuss which one you might choose for your child rather than just defaulting to the father’s surname. Out of this conversation your other values will emerge, and this will only strengthen your bond and set you off on a good course for your parenting life together. Names are very symbolic, and they can hold a lot of meaning and significance for some people. Often, they can tell you a lot about your partner, and his or her views on what makes a family.
What is the best baby name? PICK ONE! QUICK!
Ha! I’m currently 39 weeks pregnant with a boy, and so very quietly mourning the fact that I won’t get to choose another girl’s name (this is our last kid). So, here it is, an exclusive: I’m officially giving away my absolute number-one best girl’s first name ever to whomever wants it: Griselda.
You released your first book, Dress, Memory not so long ago, with a major publisher to great acclaim. This time around, you've elected to release it independently. What's the experience been like this time around? Do you recommend the approach?
I knew from very early in the developmental stages of the book that that this writing project wouldn’t suit a traditional publishing model: for one thing, at 40,000 words it’s a lot shorter than your average RRP $28 paperback. And for the other, it’s quite a niche topic!
I knew from my own experience of googling online for answers that the majority of my readers would probably be doing the same thing, rather than looking in a traditional bookshop for this type of information and, coming from a publishing background myself (I’m a book editor) I was also just excited to test the new waters of self-publishing and e-books.
As an author, it’s pretty enthralling to have control over all aspects of the book, but self-publishing is also obviously a lot more work. And most of that work isn’t necessarily in the standard author’s skill-set. I think with this book it’s really hit me how much work publicity and marketing departments do: I now understand how much energy and effort it takes to get the message out there!
Having said that, there’s also a positive aspect to that: the pressure is off because there isn’t really the same intense timeline for having to shift units: with an e-book your book is ‘for sale’ forever really. So I haven’t felt the same anxiety I felt with my last book, when there was maybe a two-month window to publicise it until they took it out of bookshops. I’m pretty relaxed about this one, because I think it will be a slow-burner; it’s a resource people will hopefully find if and when they need it; the sort of book that might become known gradually through word-of-mouth, and on pregnancy and parenting forums and blogs.
As for self-publishing, I definitely recommend it! I’ve had to put all the money up myself, of course (I’ve paid a professional editor and cover designer), but I’ve also been on my own deadlines which has suited me perfectly as the mum of a toddler with another baby now on the way.
I’m looking forward to working again with a traditional publisher for my next book (a romantic comedy called The Matchmaker’s Club), but I think I’ve got the best of both worlds now having dipped my toes into the waters of self-publishing and having learnt a lot. I also now feel empowered to write more things that might not fit inside a traditional publisher’s list (i.e. books that are shorter, or about niche topics) which is a pretty good feeling!
Speaking of releasing it independently, how can people buy it?
I’m glad you asked! Simply go to the Amazon store in your country and type in ‘Lorelei Vashti’ or the title of the book: ‘How to Choose Your Baby’s Last Name’, or follow this link!
What would you like our readers to know about the book? If you were to recommend this to new parents, what would you say?
My hope is that the book will help couples start to talk with each other about which last name they might use for their child, and make their choice a decision rather than a default.
An important thing to keep in mind is that this is a really emotional topic, and quite difficult to discuss honestly (even with your most intimate partner). So it can be a good thing to acknowledge that, and recognise that talking about it doesn’t hurt anyone or change anything—it’s very much a ‘what if’ process where you go through the options together to see if any of them feel right to both of you.
Passing down the male surname is something so ingrained in lots of Western cultures that many people don’t really consider any other options.
I’m not just talking about hyphenation or using just the mother’s last name, but the other options also include alternating surnames for siblings, blending together both of the last names (like we did), or even making up a completely new last name for your kids.
While we live in a pretty enlightened age, most people don’t often question the idea that it will be the father’s surname (in a heterosexual relationship) whose name will be passed on, so this book is a great way to open up the conversation and start talking and thinking about what surnames really mean to you. Because that’s the other important thing to remember: not everyone has the same amount of meaning or affection towards their surname, and what your name symbolises to you will be different too the way someone else feels about theirs.
Ultimately, it’s such a personal decision, but for those couples who feel like they are in a relationship where fairness and equality matter then having a conversation about surnames can really bring out many other values that are also held dear, both as individuals and as a team. Also, it's just interesting reading about what other people have done! So can I just add a little thank you here at the very end for all those people who shared their naming stories with me for the book? It couldn't exist without them. Thanks!
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